Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saturday Night With Trey McIntyre

Last night I saw The Trey McIntyre Project in Seattle and it blew me away. 9 beautiful men and women propelled themselves around the stage with strength, elegance, and humor. It began with a woman sporting balloons as breasts (full-sized balloons,that is) and ended with a wedding march accompanied by the great Freddie Mercury.

But the best of it was in the middle. I couldn't help but smile with the dancers throughout, but what moved me especially was the piece called Ten Pin Episodes, in which 3 couples performed in turn amidst bowling pins, of all things, set in place by their colleagues. It was beautiful to watch each pair move about each other, seeming to explore the possibilities of bodies interacting.

I love theatre; I sit in the audience of a play as often as I can. When I was younger I often went out to see live music. I can appreciate them both in many ways, but dance is different. Actors and musicians can entertain me; they can evoke myriad feelings; they can and do leave me thinking about their performances, but I have no interest in putting myself in their places. Dance, to me is an experiential rather than presentational art form. I can evaluate my reaction differently, thus I tend to ask myself: Would I want to be doing what these dancers are doing? How would that make me feel?

Throughout most of the night's show, and most clearly during Ten Pin Episodes, the answer exploded from my soul. I found myself wanting to dance in this way, to re-create the feeling of what I was watching, with someone I love. What a wonderful way to make love.

I don't know yet what I should get out of a dance performance. I don't know if choreographers have deep-rooted messages they try to share or if they aim primarily to create a particular aesthetic, but my appreciation is centered on the triumph of the human body. Most of us are capable of far more than we know and great dancers like these show us that. I love to see things I didn't know were possible. It is not that I thought them impossible, but I hadn't created the image for myself. I am grateful for the help. As one who tries to expand the capabilities of my own body, this actually makes it difficult to watch dance performances at times. As I sit on my butt, I feel as if I should be in the studio practicing something.

One last thing. Usually, even at a great performance, I am ready to go by the time it ends. This night I was ready for more. I went to the 3rd of 3 performances. Had my tickets been a night or 2 earlier, I definitely would have been back to see it again.


Esa mujer tiene que tener un corazon de oro;
Ella tiene que mirarme con ojos de fuego.
Cada noche tenemos que ahogarnos en un mar de besos;
Cada maƱana tenemos que salir a flote en un mar de pasion.
Cuando habla tengo que oir amor;
Cuando le veo tengo que ver vida.
Tiene que bailar cuando camina;
Tiene que jugar cuando trabaja.
Se derretiria en mi abrazo;
Se quedaria siempre en mi mente.
Si no ama todo el tiempo
Otro hombre la puede tener.

Why I Dance The Tango

Reprinted with permission; originally published at Life At The Margin on April 12, 2009

I think the role of chance in our lives is overwhelmingly underrated by almost all people. I would prefer to live in a world where it is universally understood that random events drive reality.

I have been asked the question, "How did you get into tango?" over and over again, and I have never thought seriously about the answer. I feel that people who ask this are often looking for a clean definitive answer. Something like "My wife dragged me out to a lesson" or "I wanted to find a girlfriend and wasn't working for me." Quite a few people seem to 'know' already that the answer involves a TV show called Dancing With The Stars.

The truly honest short answer is really "I don't know." The honest long answer is convoluted and riddled with uncertainty.

A proper answer could not be given without recognition of the role of chance. I do believe there is a connection between dancing salsa and starting tango, but I don't remember why I started salsa. That is probably related to the fact that I like to move methodically and that the club scene in Seattle is wholly unsatisfying.

One might say that it makes sense that Dancer X dances tango because she is a professional dancer. The connection seems clear. Yet it is uncommon for professional dancers to be involved in tango, and a randomly selected dancer at a practica or milonga is unlikely to have any professional background or aspiration.

The inherent randomness of life, dominant though it is, would be uninteresting to someone trying to learn something about the person of whom he is asking the question. As well, the importance of the non-random aspects (choices) is significant.

I once heard a religious right fanatic explain that it is ridiculous to ascribe to chance the existence of humans as a result of a process that began with single-celled organisms. But this is a complete misstatement of evolution. There is nothing random about natural selection; this should be evident from the word 'selection' but some people ignore that. It is the creation of the group of organisms that are to be selected from that is random. Evolution has two fundamental processes: the random mutation of existing genes and a competition that naturally determines which of those mutations is best suited to the complex
world around them.

Everything about us can ultimately be ascribed to chance, but decisions made along the way serve to shape the set of possibilities that chance offers us.

Outside of conversation value, I don't think the story of how I came to tango is very interesting to me. A far more interesting question to me would be: Why do I continue to dance the tango?

Perhaps that book will someday be written.

Learning Spanish and Tango

Reprinted with permission; originally published at Life At The Margin on July 9,2009

To gain knowledge, a person must allow himself to feel stupid; to gain skill, a person must allow himself to feel incompetent.

It had been a long time since I knew how a child felt. In fact I don't recall knowing how a child feels. Now I think I have a good idea. The difference between children and adults is that, while neither can effectively and consistently control their emotions, adults can use words to generate the appearance that we can control emotions. Children, lacking speech altogether or sufficient vocabulary to communicate in a given situation, resort to crying, screaming, and flailing about in frustration when they fail in communication.

Trying to speak Spanish with a limited understanding of the grammar and severely limited vocabulary, sometimes, makes me want to scream and flail about. Or at least say something in English, if only to myself.

Tango is a language as well, like any dance. In some ways, it is much more complicated than our verbal languages. There are so many aspects that either mean something or generate noise, aspects that give cues and clues to the partner one way or the other, that will be interpreted as the dancer intends them, or, more likely, in some other way.

In each of these areas, a small bit of knowledge can take a person a long way. You can certainly talk to people with a short list of the most common verbs, knowledge of their primary conjugations, and a good list of nouns gives you roughly equal competence in both adjectives and adverbs. Likewise, you can dance for weeks with a good walk, a solid embrace, and 4 or 5 simple, well-executed figures.

But you cannot say everything, and a partner is unlikely to know why it is that you're not saying certain things.

In language, dance, or any other form of communication, it is the uncertainty of meaning that makes interactions meaningful. This is the source of all laughter, for example. Even with a well-formed thought, much can be lost in the transmission. Our partner's state of mind is unknown. What was she just thinking about? Why does he say that now? Oh no, she is pulling away from me. No amount of words can account for all possible misunderstandings.

With the limited knowledge of the early stages, we are doubly disadvantaged because we don't even know what we don't know. One area of Spanish that intrigues me are the great many words that are essentially the same in english (for example, paciencia and patience, tranquilo and tranquil). I find it easy to understand others who use these words, but difficult to incorporate them into my own speech. Perhaps because I think they are easy and do not require as much work as less familiar words.

In tango, the superficial layers are relatively easy to teach and commonly learned. Perceived mastery of these figures or steps (like ochos, sacadas, boleos, etc.) can lead one to believe he knows how to dance. But knowledge of the existence of those interior layers can lead the same person to wonder why those teachers were wasting time teaching figures to beginners.

Learning in these areas, and possibly in all areas, is not linear; it is circular. We must continually come back around, retracing the same path, looking for the things we dropped along the way. And for the things we failed to notice on our early trips.

A few very early beginners have asked me what I recommend for solo practice. "Put on Carlos DiSarli and walk," I say. Each time, I have gotten a look as if I've deeply insulted them. They have done boleos in "intermediate" classes. But no one walks perfectly, and truly advanced dancers do exactly that.

Enrico, one of my current housemates, puts it this way: If you go to a beginner class for the flute, the teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips; If you go to a highly advanced class for the flute, a good teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips. Daniel Diaz says that after his parents bought him a bandoneon, it was six months before his teacher let him touch it.

Great dancers make boleos and ganchos look easy. The reason is that they are easy. It is all the stuff that they are built upon which is difficult: stepping with the music, balance, dissociation in the torso, hip alignment, timing the rebound, and more. The list is long. Most people don't think of these things until years have gone by, if ever. Some develop competency by chance, others come from intensive dance backgrounds and already developed them. Many compensate (sometimes quite effectively) for weakness in some areas with strength in others, but sometimes this takes its toll on the partner.

All of the layers of foundation can be quite daunting. The euphoria of quick progress in the beginning can be addictive. It provides its own motivation. Moving from not knowing any Spanish beyond "sombrero" to being able to make small-talk with people who know no English is real and measurable. As is the ability to stand apart from the completely arhythmic on a dance floor. But pessisimism is not far beyond. As we become conscious of our own incompetence, the strength of ego yields to self-doubt. Making progress, getting around that circle a few more times, becomes a matter of feeling like we are getting worse.

And sometimes we really do regress. Partly due to a bad choice of teachers, as well as the adjustment to a new place, I'm almost certain that I really got worse through my first 6 weeks in Buenos Aires. Who knows, though, maybe I picked up a few things. And my Spanish definitely did improve during that time. How could it not?

Recognizing the myriad areas that need improvement, however, isn't all bad. In fact, I find it quite liberating. I enjoy tango more with each week that goes by, and finding big and little things about myself that need attention gives me confidence that I will improve and enjoy it more, and bring greater enjoyment to my partners, in the future. Life would get boring if mastery came early.

Recognition of this phenomenon is what keeps people learning late into life. We are all good at certain things, and it feels good to do those things. We get positive feedback from others; we feel smart when the conversation shifts to our areas of expertise. But this can be a trap. To broaden the skill and knowledge bases, we need to expand our comfort zones. When we venture far from what feels natural, often times we get slapped around, and the easy thing to do is go back to what we know. Why else would our society be so averse to unemployment (even though polls show that most of us dislike our current jobs)? It is at this point when human nature must be overcome. The cost of learning is great in the beginning; the benefits are enormous but they are largely in the future. We know this instinctively; otherwise we would not plant gardens and wheatfields.

Finally, I think a lot of people find motivation in focusing on an end goal. Maybe to read a novel in a new language, or write one. Or to dance in a competition or an exhibition at a weekly practica. Or to have that one great and beautiful dancer say yes.

I am sure this works for some, but I take a different route. It is good to see what is possible once in a while but I find great value, when progressing toward a destination, in keeping my head down. That is, focusing on the present rather than the future, on myself rather than some idyllic model, on details rather than the big picture. Yes, I like to have some idea about the big picture I am painting, but I never want the final product to be too clear in my mind. If my image is cloudy it is easier for me to divert. I can still develop that picture, but I am not locked into an outcome. I am free to explore other possibilities.

The sun is there even on the darkest of cloudy days.